Facebook, Instagram and other social media have become part of everyday life with astonishing rapidity. So unintended consequences should perhaps have been expected.
One of the worst ‘side-effects’ has been the impact on children and young people. The death of 14-year-old Molly Russell, who took her own life after looking at posts on Instagram about self-harm, was a most extreme example. But Molly was very far from alone as a child whose life was adversely affected.
Today the Prince’s Trust publishes a survey that provides the latest evidence of the dangers, with 60 per cent of 16 to 25-year-olds saying they felt under “overwhelming pressure” because of such websites.
Adam Mosseri, the boss of Facebook-owned Instagram, has now admitted the website is “not yet where it needs to be” in handling content about self-harm and suicide. The ‘mainstream media’ has come under attack from some quarters, but none of us would ever have published the utterly appalling material available on social media.
As the publishers, social media firms cannot escape their moral duty to ensure the most basic standards of decency. The best that can be said about their rhetoric around freedom of speech is that it was naive; the worst is that it was deliberately so for cost reasons.
Companies have made fortunes by developing sophisticated ways for others to sell us things, from second-hand cars to political ideas and fake news, so they should be smart enough to protect children from those who want to do them harm. That’s priority number one.
They also need to do more to help young people cope with this rather frightening new world they have created, particularly as even politicians hardened by the ‘rough-and-tumble’ of public debate have been struggling. It is obvious that children are much more likely to wilt if exposed to this road rage-style phenomenon – the occasional humiliations of the playground turned from a fleeting moment into what may seem like a life-changing event.
And we all need to develop a greater understanding of the subtler pressures, such as the feelings of inadequacy prompted by comparing your life to the apparently wonderful ones of social media stars.
Such ‘influencers’ may also need to take a look at themselves – in a philosophical sense, not another selfie. Taking cash to promote products without declaring it may not be the worst of their sins.